"Human trafficking is one of the most important social justice issues in Arkansas today,” says Casonia Vinson, community education director at Partners Against Trafficking Humans (PATH).
Today, there are around 30 million people in slavery – more than at any time in human history – and most are sold for just $90. It is estimated that 2 million children are victims of sex trade every year. And in the U.S., 13 is the average age for trafficked children.
“Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act,” Vinson says.
“It can happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.”
Who is PATH?
PATH is one of only two day programs in the U.S. and is the only day program in Arkansas that provides specialized services for survivors of sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
“We see kids, teens, young adults and older adults every day that are victims. We see individuals from every background and circumstance. These people have endured trauma that most of us could never completely understand,” says Nick Starnes, PATH’s development director.
Advocating for men, women and children who are victimized by the sex industry and sexual abuse is one part of the organization’s mission, but it also provides a safe environment where victims and their families can heal and move forward.
“This is why funding is so important, so that we can continue to provide a program of restoration and community reintegration for rescued victims of trafficking and sexual abuse," Vinson says.
“We see just how difficult it is for [victims] to get back on their feet in a world that is so unfamiliar to them. They may have criminal charges on their background from drugs that were given to them when they were being trafficked. They may have had their personal documents stolen from them as a mechanism of control. All of those issues can affect their new life and their ability to get a job.”
Educating the Community
Vinson, Starnes and the rest of the staff at PATH may each work in different capacities, but they are all focused on one common goal: Stop human trafficking.
Vinson’s role is to provide education and awareness to the community by organizing and facilitating PATH’s victim services and awareness training with youth, adults, medical professionals, business professionals, community resources and others.
“If it is a sex-related offense, we serve those who have been directly impacted by it as well as their affected family members," Vinson says. "We present general awareness as well as include additional information tailored to specific disciplines and groups. These trainings are held in person and, more recently, virtually.”
Anyone can benefit from PATH’s education training programs. Training is mandatory for all PATH volunteers and employees and provides a real look inside the world of the sex industry focusing on trafficking and what life looks like for the victim.
In these training programs, attendees learn basic information like who becomes a victim and how, trauma’s lasting effects, how to work with or talk to a victim, a look at who traffickers and purchasers are, pornography’s role and how to become involved in the solution.
“I am interested in building a community of awareness and activism between various groups of people. I want to connect businesses, churches, schools, medical personnel, individuals, etc. with PATH and work together creatively to address the issue of human trafficking,” Starnes says.
“I want all of these organizations and individuals – especially those that might be a first point of contact with victims – to understand that trafficking happens a lot in Arkansas, and that they can all learn to recognize the red flags and actually do something about it.”
Fact & Fiction
“There are several misconceptions about trafficking. We wish others understood that trafficking truly can happen to anyone. It does not look like [the movie] 'Taken' or the ‘sketchy white van,’” Vinson says.
“It truly does happen right in our own backyard. The key to understanding that concept is to become educated on what it looks like, how to spot it and what to do when you suspect someone is being trafficked.”
Sex trafficking, especially in the U.S., is typically done by someone the victim knows. It happens within relationships, families, schools, churches and many other places that are in plain sight.
“False information does a great disservice to victims," Starnes says. "It keeps people focused on the wrong things and blind to the realities. That leads to very real victims not receiving the care they need. We urge the community to seek out information from reputable organizations like PATH that treat actual clients every day.
“Many topics are prone to politicization. Trafficking simply cannot become one of those things. We need everyone to care about this topic. There are very real people in very real danger. We see them every single day in our day center.”
Deciphering facts from false information is what Vinson works to get the word out about every day, because only then can real change happen.
“The best thing someone can do is to become educated and aware of what it is and how it happens, and if you see something, say something," she says, encouraging people to contact their local legislators to change and improve laws in the fight against this injustice.
“The worst thing someone can do is turn a blind eye to the fact that it can happen to anyone, anywhere at any time.”